Iraq Researcher Sanctioned
Tuesday, February 24, 2009; Page A04
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is sanctioning the lead author of a 2006 study that suggested massive civilian deaths in Iraq.
The school announced yesterday that it is barring Gilbert M. Burnham from serving as a principal investigator on projects involving human subjects, saying he violated school policies by collecting the names of those interviewed.
The school completed an internal review of the study, which estimated that nearly 655,000 Iraqis had died because of the U.S.-led invasion and war in Iraq. The review found that inclusion of identifiers did not affect the results of the study.
The school says the paper published in the Lancet medical journal incorrectly stated that identifying data were not collected. A correction will be submitted.
Now, "sanction" is not the same thing as "censure," but it is close enough for blog-work. The original Hopkins news release is here. (Hat tip to Tim Lambert.) Key sections:
The Bloomberg School of Public Health’s IRB acted properly in determining that the original study protocol was exempt from review by the full IRB under federal regulations. The original protocol explicitly stated that no names of study participants or living household members would be collected. The protocol also included an appropriate script to secure verbal consent from study participants, rather than a written consent process that would have included participants’ signatures.
Note that the interests of Hopkins and Gilbert Burnham are not necessarily aligned, although both wish the whole debate would go away. Hopkins wants to ensure that the Federal Government isn't angry with it since Hopkins is so dependent on federal money. Hopkins' key concern is to demonstrate that the university did nothing wrong. If that means throwing Burnham under the bus, so be it.
An examination was conducted of all the original data collection forms, numbering over 1,800 forms, which included review by a translator.
A review of the original data collection forms revealed that researchers in the field used data collection forms that were different from the form included in the original protocol. The forms included space for the names of respondents or householders, which were recorded on many of the records.
If the interviewers weren't even using the correct form (and did not visit the correct governorates), then why should we believe that they did anything else correct?
Left unexplained is whose fault this is. Did Burnham hand Lafta the wrong form? On purpose? By mistake? Or did Burnham give Lafta the correct form and then Lafta just used the wrong one? On purpose or by mistake? Recall (pdf) that the process included two face-to-face meetings.
American and Iraqi team members met twice across the border in Jordan, first to plan the survey and later to analyze the findings.
My guess is that Burnham did everything correctly (he seems like a careful and professional guy to me) but then Lafta just screwed it all up, either out of sloppiness or because field work is hard, even for the most diligent of researchers. And then Burnham got in real trouble because, after the fact, he tried to cover for Lafta. It is always the cover-up, never the crime.
And that is the real issue for Burnham's credibility. If he had just fessed up immediately, then that would be one thing. But, instead, he made a series of misleading claims about what happened. Consider just six examples:
1) Burnham's February 2007 talk at MIT (video here).
There were limitations to record keeping; we had some criticism that we could not produce a record showing which households were visited and who names of people were, and so forth.
We intentionally did not record that, because we felt that if the team were stopped at a checkpoint, of which there are lots of checkpoints, and the records were gone through, some of you may have had this experience, where you stop at a checkpoint, people go through all your papers, read everything, and they find certain neighborhoods. That might have increased risk, which we didn't want to do.
That's not true. The survey forms included names and Burnham knew that at the time he gave his talk to MIT. Note that these comments were part of the main presentation, something that Burnham had probably given on multiple occasions, not an off-the-cuff answer to a question from the audience. If Burnham said this at MIT, he probably said it elsewhere.
2) Burnham wrote to blogger Tim Lambert in February 2008:
As far as the survey forms, we have all the original field survey forms. Immediately following the study we met up with Riyadh (in this very hotel I am now in) and Shannon, Riyadh and I went through the data his team had computer entered, and verified each entry line-by-line against the original paper forms from the field. We rechecked each data item, and went through the whole survey process cluster-by-cluster. We considered each death, and what the circumstances were and how to classify it. Back in Baltimore as we were in the analysis we checked with Riyadh over any questions that came up subsequently. We have the details on the surveys carried at each of the clusters. We do not have the unique identifiers as we made it clear this information was not to be part of the database for ethical reasons to protect the participants and the interviewers.
Again, this statement is incorrect. Burnham did have the full names of at least some (or many? or most?) of the survey participants.
3) Burnham in an interview with the National Journal.
Hopkins's guidelines say that substantial modification of survey procedures without approval by the university's IRB can be deemed a serious violation. "All intentional noncompliance is considered to be serious," the guidelines state.
The survey "was carried out as we designed it," Burnham told National Journal.
Not true. The survey design called, explicitly, for the names of participants to not be collected. But the names were collected. Even if one tries to defend Burnham (see below) by insisting that he did not realize, until recently, that full names were collected, we still have the problem that Burnham has always known that Lafta used the wrong forms, forms with a space for the names of the participants. Using the wrong form is, obviously, not carry out the survey "as we designed it."
4) A description in Johns Hopkins Magazine.
Concern for the safety of interviewers and respondents alike produced two more decisions. First, they would not record identifiers like the names and addresses of people interviewed. Burnham feared retribution if a hostile militia at a checkpoint found a record of households visited by the Iraqi survey teams.
Now, a Burnham defender might argue that a) Burnham is not quoted, so this misstatement is not his fault and b) there is no misstatement here since "would not" is not the same as "did not." Perhaps. But the article clearly featured extensive cooperation from Burnham (and Doocy). They have some responsibility to make sure that the author describes their work accurately. And, to the extent that a mistake is made, they have an obligation to correct it. If Johns Hopkins Magazine can not trust professors from Johns Hopkins to clearly describe their research, then what is the world coming to?
The point of this example is not so much that it is damning in and of itself. It isn't. The point is that it is part of a pattern of Burnham giving his listeners a false impressions of whether or not names were collected. He makes everyone think that names were not collected even though they were.
5) The official Q&A from the Hopkins page, since removed (along with other material) for obvious reasons.
Approval specified that no unique identifiers would be collected from households visited by researchers, including complete names, addresses, telephone numbers or other information which could potentially put the households at risk. While household demographics were collected in both Iraq studies, personal information such as the date, location and cause of death was collected only for deceased household members. Research regulations do not consider a dead person to be a human subject and informed consent is not required for uniquely identifying information on the characteristics and circumstances of death. Informed consent was obtained from the principal respondent in each household before interviews were conducted.
"Personal information" was, we now know, collected for some living household members. Although Burnham's name does not appear on this Q&A, he was and is the Director of Center for Refugee and Disaster Response. It is hard to believe that he did not sign off on the document before it was posted.
6) "The Human Cost of the War in Iraq" (pdf), the official companion piece to Burnham et al (2006).
The survey was explained to the head of household or spouse, and their consent to participate was obtained. For ethical reasons, no names were written down, and no incentives were provided to participate.
Since names were written down, this statement is also not true. One might defend Burnham's misstatement at the MIT lecture as being an honest mistake, made while speaking off-the-cuff. One might argue that an informal e-mail to a blogger like Tim Lambert does not require perfect accuracy. One might believe that interviewers from the National Journal and Johns Hopkins Magazine were mistaken. One might assume that that Burnham never saw/approved that Q&A on the homepage of the Center that he heads.
But here we have a formal report with a statement that Burnham knew was both untrue and important. (If it were a trivial issue, then Hopkins would not have sanctioned him and no correction to the Lancet would be necessary.) How many other untrue statements are there?
Even worse, all the other L2 authors are also authors of this paper. Now, it could be that some of those authors (like Les Roberts) never saw the actual forms and so might be guilty of nothing more than an honest mistake. But Shannon Doocy saw the forms. She knew that this statement was not true.
Is Burnham telling the truth even now? Good question! Consider this article from the Baltimore Sun:
The Johns Hopkins University has disciplined the lead author of a widely publicized study that reported widespread civilian deaths in Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion.
Discipline, sanction, censure. Whatever. They all work for me!
Because of the difficulty of carrying out research in Iraq during the war, Burnham and his team partnered with Iraqi doctors at a university in Iraq. Burnham, working out of Jordan, said he made it clear to the doctors that they could collect the first names of children and adults, to help keep the information straight, but that last names could not be collected.
Huh? This seems really fishy to me. I assume that collecting first names was not a part of the protocol that Burnham submitted to Hopkins. I have certainly never heard of anything like this. (Counter examples welcome!) You either write down someone's name or you don't. So, Burnham knew, before the interviewers went out that they were using a form with a spot for names? And he didn't say, "Wait! That's not the form you are supposed to use." The whole thing makes no sense. Unless Burnham is trying to cover for Lafta, trying his best to make his actions in recording names less damning.
And that is key to defending the results of the study. If Lafta screwed this up, then there is every reason to think that he screwed up other stuff, either on purpose or by mistake. If he wrote down names when Burnham told him not to, then how does anyone know if he followed the assigned sampling plan? We don't.
But if Burnham can take the blame himself, can claim that he told/allowed Lafta to write down partial names, then, perhaps, the rest of Lafta's work can still be trusted. I do not believe that Burnham really told Lafta that he could write down partial names.
You disagree? Fine. Let's ask Shannon Doocy. She was with Burnham in Jordan. She was a co-author of the study. She knows Lafta. Presumably, she was in the room when Burnham/Lafta discussed the planing for the study. I bet that she can't/won't back up Burnham on this point. She's not 66 and tenured . . .
When the surveys came back to him in Jordan, it appeared that some had last names. Many were in Arabic. Burnham said he asked his Iraqi partners and was told that the names were not complete, which he accepted. But Hopkins, in its investigation, found that the data form used in the surveys was different from what was originally proposed, and included space for names of respondents. Hopkins found that full names were collected.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave . . .
If I were Baltimore Sun reporter Stephen Kiehl, I would ask some follow up questions:
1) How many of the 1,800+ forms had names? How many of those names were full names (as opposed to just first names)? Were those names all in Arabic, all in English or a mixture? How many of the names were in English?
"Many" might be 20 or 100 or 500. But, given that the forms featured lots of English words (cause of death and so on), I would bet that many (hundreds?) names were in English. So, Burnham looked at a name like "Nouri al-Maliki" or "Iyad Allawi" and said, "Sure. I accept that these names are not complete." Unlikely! Again, it would be nice to ask Shannon Doocy some questions as well.
2) What is Burnham's take on the fact that his "Iraqi partners" misled him? (Was this just Lafta or Lafta and some other interviewers? My understanding had been was that it was just Lafta who brought the forms to Burnham/Doocy in Jordan. And note that Lafta is not just a "partner," he is an official co-author on the study.) Here we have documented proof that one author of the study misled another author of the study. How much faith does Burnham think we should have in a study in which the authors are lying to each other?
3) Why did Burnham mislead so many news organizations? Consider his (and Roberts') letter (also here) to the National Journal:
In the ethical review process conducted with the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Institutional Review Board, we indicated that we would not record unique identifiers, such as full names, street addresses, or any data (including details from death certificates) that might identify the subjects and put them at risk.
Oh, snap! Did you catch that? I thought that this was just going to be one of many examples of where Burnham lied, after the fact, about not collecting names. But note that he is not lying! Sneaky! He and Roberts do not claim (falsely) to not have collected names. They claim (truthfully) to having told Hopkins that they "would not" record names. Hah! I did not catch that the first time around because I assumed a basic level of honesty from Burnham. My mistake! (Further discussion here.) Comments:
1) This is circumstantial evidence that, at least by this point, Roberts was in on the lie.
2) I suspect that "full names" rather than just "names" is used to preserve wiggle room on various dimensions.